Barack Obama’s Poor Approval Rating: A Puzzle Liberals Can’t Crack

Seeing some of the assumptions that are baked into the political calculations on the Left is a bit on the odd side. For example, here’s Matt Bai talking with liberals about why Barack Obama is so unpopular right now,

Democrats in Washington are divided and somewhat puzzled over President Obama’s fading popularity. They reject, of course, the Republican view that the president is basically a closet Socialist whose disdain for free enterprise has alienated voters. But that’s about as far as the consensus goes.

In conversations over the past few weeks, some of the party’s leading strategists told me that it all comes down to messaging, or – here’s that ubiquitous word again – “framing.” The president who ran such a brilliant campaign, they argue, has utterly failed to communicate his successes. They cited factors like the president’s cool demeanor and suggested that he hadn’t used the right words or shown the proper empathy.

But when I put the same question to John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff who led Mr. Obama’s transition team, I heard what sounded like a deeper and more persuasive explanation. You might call it the “legislative box” theory.

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Like other Democrats, Mr. Podesta, who now runs the liberal Center for American Progress and is arguably the most influential Washington Democrat not currently in government, assumes that many of the president’s struggles were unavoidable. Stubborn joblessness and anemic growth have thus far resisted intervention and defined the administration.

…Mr. Obama’s central strategy was to concentrate on cajoling Democratic lawmakers into passing a series of bills – the stimulus package, the health care overhaul, a new set of financial regulations. Rather than spend a lot of time rallying public support for the agenda, Mr. Podesta said, the administration expected to get an “updraft” from an improving economy; the bet was that, as unemployment came down and consumer confidence rose, public opinion would more or less take care of itself.

“That strategy was built on the no-economic-stall option,” Mr. Podesta said. “In other words, the idea was that you didn’t have to get the unemployment rate to a certain number, but you had to get unemployment going in the right direction, and people would feel that, and it would be palpable.”

The problem, as Mr. Podesta says, is that “we’re all still waiting for that.”

….The strategy had other implications for Mr. Obama’s image. As Mr. Podesta points out, part of the president’s significant appeal to voters – “a big part of the secret sauce of getting him elected” – was his promise to transcend perennial partisanship.

A more national, outward-looking strategy for creating a “postpartisan” dynamic might have included White House partnerships with Republican governors or even with conservative foundations or industry groups. Because the president effectively boxed himself in to a Capitol Hill-only strategy, though, he handed the Republican minorities in Congress the power to sabotage his goal.

“Once you became a legislative president, which is arguably what you needed to do, you couldn’t deliver on the nonpartisanship promise,” Mr. Podesta said. “And it’s something people wanted.”

Now, it’s certainly true that Barack Obama had a number of difficult challenges to deal with when he came into office. There were two wars going on, the economy was down, and his base certainly expected a lot.

I’d also add that Podesta is onto something when he talks about the “postpartisan dynamic.” Barack Obama ran as a healer who was going to unite the country after the ugliness of the Bush year. Instead, he has governed as a rabid ideologue who has made no attempts of significance to work with the Republican Party. Liberals insist this isn’t so, but trying to pick off Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins by tossing them a couple of meaningless crumbs on legislation isn’t in any meaningful sense a real attempt to work with the GOP. Some people might also say that the GOP wouldn’t have worked with Obama anyway, but since he never tried, I guess we’ll never know.

In any case, what I find fascinating here is the elephant in the room that no one in the article seemed willing to address: Barack Obama has been on the wrong side of a lot of unpopular issues. Big issues, too. The bailouts which Obama supported and expanded? Very unpopular. The stimulus? Not popular. Health care reform? Extremely unpopular. Opposing the Arizona immigration law? Dumb move? Supporting the Ground Zero mosque? Even dumber.

You can argue that if the economy were better, people might actually like these policies better. There’s probably some truth to that. But, there’s also a lot of truth to the idea that putting a bow on a dog turd doesn’t turn it into a doorstop. When you choose to push an unpopular socialistic agenda that the American public is clearly, unambiguously telling you that it doesn’t want, you shouldn’t be surprised when your approval rating plunges.

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